Dems' Debate: Vision Or Guts?

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"I earned political capital, and now I intend to spend it." With those words, George W. Bush set out on a second term that is sure to run against most every wish of the Democratic Party. So what should Democrats do about it? Do they fight to the death, or should they let the administration win a few rounds? TAP Online columnist Terence Samuel and Prospect staff writer Matthew Yglesias debate the most effective strategy for congressional Democrats.
Terence Samuel:

For Democrats trying to figure out what they need to do as an opposition party, there should be little confusion about how to approach the new role, or the newly acknowledged role. They have to come out slugging. There's recent history to draw on; it wasn't so long ago that Republicans, despite always being competitive (and sometimes even dominant) in presidential elections, seemed irrevocably tagged as the opposition party. Governors' mansions, statehouses, city halls, both chambers of Congress -- all were dominated by Democrats for more than two generations.

Republicans didn't just let the Democrats dig their own grave, though that wasn't an implausible strategy. They knew what they wanted and they fought for it. They actively went out and undermined and discredited the very foundations of the Democratic Party, slowly disassembling its coalition and appropriating its power. They began with the obvious, which is to define yourself by what you say "no" to: taxes, regulation, a woman's right to end a pregnancy at her own discretion. That's the essence of opposition.
But to close the deal, they made people feel righteous about what they were against. So government programs become government waste, and regulation became red tape. It was clear that the government needed to get off the backs of the people, and, of course, every life was sacred. Suddenly they had core values.

The GOP assault was strategic, relentless, and completely unaccommodating to the notion that there was any redeeming value to the other side. "Liberal" became a dirty word and the U.S. government, that fabulous piece of constitutional architecture, became a force for evil.

Yet Democrats seemed not to be paying attention. Today's political battles are mostly about tactics and strategy, and that inattention, more than anything else, is why Democrats find themselves so often on the business end of the GOP's big stick.

Politicians on both sides like to say ideas matter. True -- but the ideas that matter most are the ones that belong to those in power, so ultimately the real battle is one for power. That's never been pretty and it's not really that much about ideas, either. It's about winning. The American people have sifted through the ideas and they're split evenly on which ones to embrace. While Democrats have favored wannabe statesmen and intellectuals to sell their ideas, the GOP of late has come to the table with crusaders and warriors. If one side thinks it's a cocktail party and the other comes ready for a bar fight, guess who wins when the brawl breaks out? The ones with the brass knuckles, not the champagne glasses.

Democrats may simply need their own Newt Gingrich, or their own Karl Rove or Lee Atwater, tacticians who believe in their mission or their man and are not willing to apologize for any weaknesses or shortcomings. Flaws be damned!

Democrats need to fight for the simple reason that they are out of practice, and they need to find out what it is they think is worth fighting for. Even as they remain unable to articulate what it means to be a Democrat, nearly half the country keeps voting with them. If they are right, and the other side is wrong, they need to say that. They need to say how and why, and then reassure voters that it's OK -- not just OK but downright American -- to feel the way they do. Much of that public reassurance will flow on its own with the self-assurance that the party in general seems to lack. Democrats have to stop seeming so wobbly, whether it's on war, or taxes, or abortion. They need to stand up and lead. Their following may already be in place.

Matthew Yglesias:

On the point that the Democratic Party needs to fight, you'll get no argument from me. The question is which battles to fight and in what way. The model of the past four years has been characterized by the Republicans -- not unfairly -- as obstructionism, trying as hard as possible to block as many administration proposals as possible. At the time this made, or at least seemed to make, a great deal of sense. The 2000 election -- with its Democratic gains in the Senate, Al Gore's popular-vote win, and Ralph Nader's nontrivial margin -- appeared to illustrate the existence of a nascent center-left majority that failed to manifest itself inside the Beltway only due to some quirks of the voting system. Try to limit the damage George W. Bush can do in four years, the theory went, mobilize the forces of liberalism, and the Democratic return to power shouldn't be far off.

It was an idea that seemed to make sense, but it didn't work. That nascent center-left majority turned out not to exist. Bush turned out not to be very popular, but the Democrats turned out to be less popular still. The upshot is that Democrats need to do something to expand their appeal, and simply being the party that says "no" to a re-elected president and his expanded congressional majorities won't do it.

The starting point for any analysis of the issue has to be that, objectively speaking, blocking Bush's initiatives will be very difficult. Over the past four years, and especially since the 2002 midterms, the Democrats haven't been very successful at it. Reduced to an even smaller minority, and with a large block of Democratic senators still representing pro-Bush states, it will be harder still. Holding the caucus together to successfully filibuster legislation would likely take all the time and attention the leadership could possibly muster. And even under the best of circumstances, the efficacy of such a strategy would be undermined by the Republicans' ability to abuse the conference-committee process, the budget-reconciliation rule, and possibly even the "nuclear option" of simply rescinding the filibuster rule -- first for judicial nominations, and perhaps for other things later.

A better path would be to dedicate the bulk of Democratic time and attention to fulfilling the role played by opposition parties in the parliamentary democracies that the United States increasingly resembles. In other words, to outline an alternative agenda for the future.

Republicans didn't win control of Congress in 1994 simply by holding the line against Clinton-administration proposals. Instead, they took advantage of their status as a minority to position themselves as the party of reform. Every flaw in the federal bureaucracy, every frustrating aspect of Washington corruption, every nonsensical element of congressional procedure became -- temporarily, at least -- a wholly owned subsidiary of the Democratic Party that was running the country. This is a move that Democrats could easily imitate. The promises of reform in the "Contract with America" have gone utterly unfulfilled and, indeed, things have grown worse in almost every respect. As a minority party lacking in the privileges of entrenched power, the Democrats are ideally positioned to combine anti-corporate populism with anti-government populism, arguing not for the rollback of the state (major federal programs remain quite popular) but for its reform.

A similar approach can be carried over into more substantive policy realms. Liberals have ideas for improving health care, education, retirement security, and national security. A legislative strategy focused on building unity within the party around some of these ideas and communicating them to the public could build electoral support for candidates the next time around while improving the image of the Democratic brand. A strategy centered on saying "no," by contrast, will only increase the perception (deadly at the polls earlier this month) that Democrats don't really stand for anything, or, worse, that they are simply defenders of the status quo.

The proposals that Bush is likely to put forward will almost certainly be bad, but they will be targeted at addressing problems that are very real: a complicated and inefficient tax code, the rising cost of health care, the long-term shortfall in the Social Security budget. A Democratic Party toward which the electorate already exhibits considerable skepticism can hardly afford to present itself to the public as the party that's "against" tax reform, Social Security reform, or, generally speaking, tackling the big issues. Democrats need to break away from their self-image as the natural party of government that aims at taking "back" a congressional majority regarded as a birthright. The government that exists today is the Republicans' government, the tax code is their tax code, public problems are their problems, and the role of the opposition is to pin the blame on the incumbents and outline their own ideas for solving them. Ideally, Democrats wouldn't have to play an obstructionist role; when they do, they need to keep in mind their overall priorities and not get dragged into the Republicans' preferred battles. The focus needs to be on opposition -- outlining and selling an alternative agenda -- and not on obstructing the designs of a Republican Party fresh off a string of electoral wins.

Samuel:

Democrats didn't lose the election because they were tagged as obstructionists, or because they actually were obstructionists, or because they spent too much time obstructing rather than advancing a compelling alternative agenda.

They lost because they got out-muscled in Ohio, Florida, South Dakota, and all of those southern states where they lost Senate seats. In Texas, where Tom DeLay so brilliantly out-hustled them, Democrats lost four incumbents, two of whom, Martin Frost and Charlie Stenholm, had been in the House for 25 years. Those old Texas hands were not out of touch with their districts; they just got hammered by the other side, and not about ideas. Stenholm is so conservative that he spent a good part of the last decade explaining why he had not switched parties. Still, the bull's-eye on his back could not have been bigger if his last name were Rangel, instead of Stenholm. And they got him.

The GOP just played the game better, harder, and with more feeling. Who would think of a second round of redistricting between Census counts? People who understand the need to press every advantage and then do it. There's no question that some policy repositioning is in order, but that's routine work for any party that must balance the needs of base constituencies that are more radical with those of middle-of-the-road voters who can put it over the top. But repositioning carries its own risk, in that too much tweaking makes a party look like it's simply playing to the bad election results. Having yet again lost a big election, it's important for Democrats to examine whether they need to recalibrate their positions on tax reform, Social Security reform, and maybe even on guns, abortion, and gay marriage, plus all of the other important big issues of the day. And there may be no better place to begin that work than in the Congress, where the give and take of legislating can shake loose the occasional good idea. But more nuanced positions are not the Democrats' problems. (For example, à la Kerry, "I oppose gay marriage but support civil unions"; "I voted no for the war for but to deliver authority for the war.")

The moral-issues barrier that Democrats find themselves up against is not so much a matter of whether they connect with voters on those issues but whether they command the respect of voters, wherever they are on the issues. It's about respect. And people respect honest combatants almost as much as they respect victors.

All those years in the majority may have allowed certain Democratic political muscles to atrophy: They don't go into a fight as if their lives depended on it. The party has a "you win some, you lose some" attitude that ensures that it will lose more than it wins. Different results will require different behavior. And it will require more than simply offering Democratic alternatives on the budget or on the tax bill or on Medicare.

Republicans did not offer alternatives to the Clinton health-care plan in 1993; they demeaned it, demonized it, and then defeated it. Ten years later, they stole the health-care issue from the Democrats with a massive prescription-drug addendum to Medicare, not just by selling it to the Congress and the country but by keeping the vote open for three hours until they passed it. Balls to the wall is the only way the game can be won.

After you establish your backbone bona fides, then you can offer your "Contract with America," your better plan for Social Security. You can offer yourself as an alternative to all that you oppose.

Yglesias:

It would be foolish to doubt the importance of political organization, but if the 2004 election taught us anything it ought to be that the combination of anti-Bushism and what really was an unprecedented voter-mobilization effort still isn't good enough to win elections. What's more, Democratic fortunes were bolstered by objectively bad circumstances in the world: a dreary economy throughout much of the Midwest and a deteriorating situation in Iraq. Both the economy and the war may continue to go poorly, or even get worse, either of which would help the party in the future. Alternatively, one or both situations may improve -- which, under present circumstances, would be deadly for the Democratic Party. Counting on more bad news to keep the party competitive would be risky, and if the public were to sense that that was going on it would be politically deadly as well.

Democrats desperately need to take action to get a bit of the old "vision thing" and not just play hardball politics. The nuance problem you identify is a case in point. Bush has promised to appoint a commission to study large-scale tax reform. The resulting proposal will almost certainly involve yet another major lowering of taxes on the wealthy. At the same time, it will doubtless achieve a few worthy things in the way of simplification and loophole elimination. If Democrats stick to the pattern of the past four years and wait to see Bush's proposal, then start pointing out what a bad idea it is, and then try to block it, they'll find themselves accused of being "against tax reform." "No, no, no," they'll protest. "We're not against reform; we're just against this particular reform." It'll be a nuanced view, and they'll get slaughtered on it.

A better approach would be to seize the advantages that minority status grants. Without any realistic possibility of seeing their plan implemented, Democrats can afford to be utopian and ignore the special-interest influence and other facts of political reality that make tax reform difficult. The party could unite around a revenue-neutral plan to broaden the tax base by eliminating loopholes and deductions while lowering rates across the board. Acting swiftly while the wheels of actual legislation grind slowly, the party can then position itself as the first to author a comprehensive plan. "The president," they can say, "has promised the country tax reform. Where is it? We've got our plan." Thus the public debate could be focused, temporarily at least, on an appealing Democratic idea and not merely on charges and countercharges that cede the initiative to the White House.

There's no particular need for the party to move to the right on the domestic economic issues that continue to be its major source of strength, but Democrats can't allow concern over the harm Bush might inflict to get them stuck as the defenders of the status quo. No one ever founded a new majority on promises not to change existing programs. Backbone is good; indeed, it's necessary. But it must be backbone for something, not merely against the president's agenda.


Terence Samuel is the chief congressional correspondent for U.S. News & World Report. Matthew Yglesias is a Prospect staff writer. Their columns appear each week in the Prospect's online edition.


By Terence Samuel and Matthew Yglesias
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved
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